Before we see Solo, let’s fix The Last Jedi

I trashed this movie pretty hard, but it wouldn’t take much to fix it.

So it’s no secret that a lot of people didn’t like The Last Jedi. A lot of people did, too, which is fine. But for the most part, it seems to me that the people who like it do so because they see what it was trying to do and give it a pass for not actually accomplishing those things. There’s honestly nothing wrong with that approach, but it doesn’t work for me for this movie.

So instead, I’d like to pontificate for a moment about a few things we might do to actually fix this movie. I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about this and my suggestions might not be perfect but I think they would get us closer to what Rian Johnson actually wanted to accomplish.

So here, in no particular order, are the things I would change to help The Last Jedi accomplish its goals.

Canto Bight

Let’s not change anything here. I know a lot of people hate this sequence because it ultimately doesn’t solve the problems they set out to solve. That’s OK, though. Some people also dislike it because ultimately nothing Finn and Rose accomplish there sticks – the damage is repaired, the horse things are recaptured. But that wasn’t the point either. The point is in that final moment with the kid who force pulls the broom to himself. He was inspired by their actions. A rebellion is built on hope, I’ve heard, but it’s sustained with inspiration. The kid sees a different path, now, and he probably isn’t the only one. That is because of Finn and Rose. The sequence does everything we need it to.

Poe’s plot

OK, so, let’s actually have Poe screw up. I think the simplest way to do this is to change the initial plan. Instead of having a plan to destroy the enemy cruiser that Leia tells Poe to abort let’s have the plan always be about Poe distracting and annoying people. And then let’s have him audible in the bombers. At this point, ensuing deaths would be 100% his fault because instead of just insisting they follow through on a plan to which everyone initially agreed he really appears to be seeking glory and heroism. This much more closely fits what everyone accuses him of.

Then let’s actually remove him from the command structure. Don’t demote him; bench him entirely. Confine him to quarters while you try to figure out what you need to do with him and have that decision delayed by the First Order’s follow up attack and Leia’s coma. Don’t let him out to try to fly against the Imperials. Keep him locked up and frustrated. Then, when he comes up with the plan with Rose and Finn that counters what General Holdo wants to accomplish, he’s really acting out. Instead of just acting on command authority without consulting others who are technically above him but practically in a different command structure. He’d be using authority he shouldn’t even have anymore. The rest of this can play out more or less the way it actually did in the movie only it will fit a lot better.

Rey and Kylo’s plot

Actually, this isn’t bad either. the biggest change I’d make here is that I’d have Rey learn the truth of her parentage in the cave. As things stand the cave is entirely pointless. She stands around snapping her fingers and absolutely nothing happens. Why is this sequence here? Let’s kill two birds with one stone. I had the light shown to me when I read somewhere – I forget where so if you know please tell me so I can properly credit the writer – that the way Rey’s parentage is revealed is a tad on the icky side because it could have been a moment of empowerment for her but instead becomes something Kylo gets to wield against her. So let’s take that away from him – he doesn’t need it – and give it back to her.

After meeting with Luke and realizing he doesn’t want to train her she’s probably already feeling rejected, again, so let’s let her face her past on her own terms. The follow through where she continues to resist the temptation to slip to the dark side then follows a bit more strongly, as well. I think it was intended to show her hitting rock bottom but it never really feels like that so I think a different angle might do better.

General Holdo

For starters, let’s put her in a uniform. There’s really no need for the dress and it’s distracting as hell. Then, now that we’ve fixed Poe’s place in the story, we don’t have to change her much. Everything she does makes sense in this new context. Except for one thing. The way she acts after sending the transports off to Crait. First of all, she always should have adjusted course to try to block line-of-sight to the transports just for added security and safety. But let’s assume that wasn’t an option because the very act of changing course would have given the game away. That seems reasonable. You know what would have been a hell of a lot more distracting than just trying to fly along on her merry way? (Which, ya know, flying straight is probably something the autopilot could have handled anyway.) Doing the thing she eventually did, anyhow. Flip the cruiser around and use it as a giant weapon against the First Order fleet.

This moment of self-sacrifice would be even more of an excellent lesson for Poe about “Glory” and the costs it has if it had been planned from the beginning and made clear to Poe that that was the case. It makes Holdo a stronger character with firmer convictions and noble purpose instead of the helpless incompetent who stood there and watched half of her allies get slaughtered before she finally coming up with a desperate plan.

Luke Skywalker

Finally, we get to Luke. We’re going to need to make a couple changes here. I still, for the life of me, can’t see Luke Skywalker being the kind of guy who would whip out his lightsaber and wield it against his sleeping nephew before realizing that’s probably a bad idea. But I can see a couple other options that would work just as well to motivate Ben – keeping in mind that Luke losing an apprentice in any sense, but especially one which saw students or staff die at the hands of a traitor could still lead him to run away and lick his wounds as he ends up doing. He could see or sense Ben meeting with Snoke and arrive on the scene wielding his lightsaber which caused Ben to move up the timetable for his betrayal; it’s already canon, after all, that Ben was being tempted to the Dark Side. Luke’s fears did not come out of nowhere. Or perhaps Ben could overhear Luke having a conversation with ghost Obi-Wan about Luke knowing that Ben has been meeting with Snoke and maybe Old Ben tells Luke he should just kill young Ben, now. Heck, you could rip a page out of Final Fantasy XV and have Snoke use a Jedi mind trick on Luke that causes him to think Ben is Snoke or someone else just as evil and have Luke attack him unintentionally.

The point is that you can move the characters to the same places with the same feelings without turning Luke into such a cowardly figure. I think most Star Wars fans are willing to go along with you to a world where Luke isn’t perfect. Where Luke is scared, or confused, or angry. But to ask us all to believe in a Luke who is so cowardly that he would so seriously consider killing his own student and nephew while he slept in cold blood is just a bridge too far.

I know I spent some time in my original review complaining about Luke dying. I didn’t think it was necessary and I didn’t like the way it was done. I still don’t think it was absolutely necessary but I can see how it works even if it wasn’t. Luke’s continued existence in the franchise would be something of an Avengers problem for every subsequent movie where people would ask why he doesn’t come out of retirement to help solve this latest problem the same way they ask why the Avengers don’t always show up to help out heroes in every solo superhero movie.  I also still don’t like how Luke’s death was done with what amounts to a fakeout followed by the real death. But I’m actually not entirely sure how I’d fix that. The best I’ve come up with is maybe to show him straining more when we flash to his real body after the reveal so that it’s more apparent that what he’s doing will kill him.

And that’s it. Well, one more thing, I’d like to see Rey ditch the ancient Jedi texts. In a movie that goes on and on about letting the past die it still feels incredibly odd that the absolute worst part of the past – the texts of an order that did stupid things in the name of stupid ideals and hurt people and ultimately got themselves killed – survives. And I wouldn’t have Rose fall in love with Finn after knowing him for less than 24 hours. That seems way too convenient.

OK, so that’s it. As you can see most of the movie survives intact. It’s just a few key changes to actually communicate the messages and ideas Mr. Johnson appears to have been trying to tell through this movie. He doesn’t have bad ideas it’s just like he didn’t bother to completely plot out all the details and trusted the audience to just accept whatever outcome he gave them. How about you? Do you like these changes or would you rather make different ones?

Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 Review

There is still lots to do, but overall it was pretty dang good.

Star Trek, as a franchise, typically starts veeeeery slowly. The first seasons of the series are generally a slog to get through, even when they contain a few terrific episodes. This even holds true with the movies as well where The Motion Picture and Generations are easily the two dullest movies in their respective timelines. 2009’s reboot was by no means slow but more discussion about the reboot movies will have to come another time. Suffice to say I view them differently from the rest of the franchise.

Yes, before you all start picking at me I said dullest not worst. I maintain, however, that The Final Frontier gave us one of the best lines of all time:

Anyway.

If Star TrekDiscovery‘s first season is it’s worst or slowest then we’re either going to end up with the best Star Trek, yet or everything just might fly entirely out of control. Discovery already easily holds the record for the quickest a Star Trek series has ever made me fall in love. That being said I want to dig into some specifics as to what made this season good and what they’ll need to work on, next year. We’ll start with the bad because I want to end on a positive note. Of course, there will be spoilers for the entire season.

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The Bad

LGBT Representation

I already went on, at length, in the season finale recap earlier this week about how they really screwed up when they decided to reinforce decades-old stereotypes about people who like sex being evil especially bisexuals who also just always want to have sex with as many people as possible. I also noted that they had already abused the “Bury Your Gays” trope earlier this season. I had promised I was going to expand on that and I promise I was going to. But the fact of the matter is nothing I write could compare to what was already written by Andi over at Women at Warp (Warning, possible future spoilers from creator interviews). So just read what they had to say on the subject and know that I agree with them 100%.

Representation of Women and Minorities

The show proudly features a black woman, Sonequa Martin-Green, as it’s first-among-ensemble. And yet the show hasn’t exactly treated women or minorities with a lot of kindness so far. The show started off well by putting an Asian woman in command of a ship and making a black woman her first officer but by the end of the fourth episode the commander was a convicted felon, the captain had died, and the female security chief of the Discovery who was only introduced in the third episode had been killed. The only black male in the ensemble was also killed before the season ended. Compare this to only one white dude getting stabbed.

The finale wants to be a redemption of women where it has Michael Burnham (played by Martin-Green), Tilly (Mary Wiseman), L’Rell (Mary Chieffo), Emperor Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), and Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) all being the primary drivers of the action and the final resolution. Which is great except for the part where Georgiou gets undercut by the aforementioned Depraved Bisexual trope and Cornwell looks indecisive as she goes along with whichever plan is handed to her last with very little debate or apparent thought on her part. We do at least see Tilly get her well-deserved place on the command track and Burnham gets her commission back but it isn’t the total victory it should have been.

When I wrote before the show came back from its winter hiatus I also talked about the history of Star Trek as a predictor of social equality and a platform for social justice advocacy throughout the decades. The people behind Discovery have made it very clear that they aren’t just here to steal the franchise name for their own profit; they actually want to continue that proud heritage. I believe them and it isn’t like Star Trek has always been absolutely perfect in this score, either. But the show must continue to try to improve on these scores as it continues into next season.

The Awkward

In the context of the entire season, the entire mirror universe tangent now feels incredibly pointless. Don’t get me wrong, I understand how it’s supposed to play into Michael’s growing understanding about the need for principles in Starfleet and the Federation but it’s kind of overkill to spend 4 episodes in an alternate dimension for only that. And that’s pretty much all that’s accomplished, there.

Yes, the Lorca reveal was really cool when it first happened. But in retrospect, it fails to continue to impact the show. His coup attempt was short lived and everyone on the Discovery was wary of him to begin with, so the betrayal doesn’t really have any continuing effect on the crew once he was dealt with. Taken in the context of the whole season it also feels incredibly out-of-place to so completely forget about the Klingon War for a little bit more than a quarter of the season when that is the only thing anyone can talk about or act upon for the entire rest of the time.

The Good

Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad

If the four episodes of the Mirror Universe end up being unsatisfactory filler, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is a terrific example of how filler can be done even in a high-tension, serialized show like this. Unlike the Mirror Universe episodes, it doesn’t completely ignore the primary matter of the season. It tells us more about more characters than the Mirror Universe does in a fraction of the time. Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Burnham, and Lieutenant  Tyler (Shazad Latif) all show the audience more of who they are. I anticipate Rainn Wilson’s Harry Mudd, who we learned much more about as well, will be a recurring character in the future. Finally, it includes probably the best call-back to the Original Series in a season of television where such references were liberally sprinkled throughout.

The characters and acting

There is not a bad actor in the entire cast of this show. The writers gave them quality material, for the most part, and they all absolutely made the most of it. Sonequa Martin-Green nailed down the idea of Michael Burnham as a human who wished at times to be Vulcan as perfectly as Leonard Nimoy portrayed the first Vulcan and threw in some terrific sass and internal conflict at other points. Jason Isaacs gave us an anti-hero-turned-villain Captain Lorca that had us all fooled as to how good or evil he was until the very last moment without ever lying to us. Jayne Brook’s Admiral Cornwell was the rare fictional female character who was tough as nails without ever being masculine or cruel. Michelle Yeoh delivered two very different, very distinct interpretations of Phillipa Georgiou with terrific gravitas. In very limited screen time Wilson Cruz’s Dr. Hugh Culber made many fans fall in love with the caring, capable doctor. Mary Chieffo did a terrific job delivering a L’Rell who was a true believer but not a mindless zealot.

I want to pay special attention to four others of the cast, though. Shazad Latif was simply amazing as Ash Tyler and Voq but particularly when Tyler was at his most emotionally vulnerable. It takes near perfect balance to find the place where you’ve gone far enough but not so far that it slips into farce and Latif walked that line beautifully. Anthony Rapp’s interpretation of Paul Stamets had so much depth. There was a living energy to his performances that can be lacking from lesser actors. He also stayed away from being a one-note character. It could have been really easy for Stamets to be a gentle, forgetful scientist for the entire series. But at the beginning when he’s the most frustrated with his work and with the circumstances he is in he is very cantankerous. When Tyler apologizes to him for the death of Culber he could have played it much more gently if he wanted. Instead, there was a cold rage behind his eyes that cause me to lean back a bit, even viewing it on my computer screen.

Mary Wiseman showed a tremendous knack for comedic timing without ever letting Tilly devolve into simply being the comedic relief. She grew the character from an annoying chatterbox at the beginning into an insightful, decisive crew member by the end of the season without sacrificing her youthful exuberance. And finally, Doug Jones did a terrific job with Saru. I have many complaints about the way the writers choose to use his “threat ganglia” but there can be no questioning the care Mr. Jones takes in his craft. Saru starts the series in a bit over his head and it only gets worse for a bit. He starts as an exceptionally competent bureaucrat who wants to be a leader; he backs down from every confrontation and when he’s forced into command he allows his fears to pressure him into making poor choices. But gradually as the series continues without ever foisting an “Aha!” moment on him Saru learns to face his fears and to truly lead his crew. By the end of the season, he is a true leader. That lack of the “Aha!” moment is so key for how great this ends up being. Those things rarely happen in real life; eventually, you just look back and realize you are different than you were. Sometimes you can see some of the steps that happened along the way but it’s rarely about just a single moment. Because no such moment was written into the script it was up to Jones to gradually portray the character as becoming more and more comfortable with his leadership responsibilities and he does it masterfully.

To paraphrase one of my favorite YouTube channels, “No show is without sin” and that definitely holds true for Star Trek: Discovery but they’ve done some really good work, too. If the Star Trek franchise is a forest then Discovery is a new, healthy sapling that has just been planted. It has healthy, fertile soil in the form of solid writers and a terrific cast that want to work together to make a terrific show that follows in footsteps of those that came before. It is being fertilized with plenty of money to fulfill the things the cast and writers come up with. The hard stop to the first season’s plot line also means it won’t be forced to grow into any particular direction that might make it weaker. Star Trek: Discovery has room to grow into the best version of itself and I, for one, can’t way to see what comes next.

 

 

Star Trek: Discovery’s Season Finale was a Dud

I see where they were going…but they seem to have missed the mark

If you need a spoiler-free review of the season finale I believe that the title and the excerpt say it all. To describe any more why it was a dud requires delving into spoilers. So let’s just dive in.

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The episode suffers from just 4 major problems and one problem that might be better described as an annoying quibble. However, if you just took the major problems out the episode would barely exist. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s go ahead and break it down, shall we?

Phillipa Georgiou never needed to be the captain

The episode starts off with a thud when a decision from the end of last week comes back to bite everyone in the butt in a completely predictable way. Emperor Phillipa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) has given Starfleet a plan to end the Klingon war by destroying their homeworld, Qo’nos. In exchange for this plan, Starfleet agrees to grant her, a known violent racist and mass-murderer, complete freedom to roam their galaxy. They also put her in charge of the mission and, confusingly, the ship.

At the end of the previous episode I, and many others, were left wondering why it was decided she needed to be in command of the ship. As we see in this episode there really was absolutely no reason for it. Precious airtime is wasted as she pointlessly snipes at each crew member in turn until Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) pointlessly tries to expose her for no possible gain that I could determine. After she fails, Georgiou leaves the bridge and never returns to it having contributed exactly nothing to the mission as captain that couldn’t have been achieved by absolutely any other warm body in a Starfleet uniform.

Qo’nos isn’t very Klingon

The writers raised the hackles of many long-time Trekkies when they – yet again – revamped the makeup design for the Klingons at the start of this series. However, the silliness of that choice pales in comparison to the world-design they did for Qo’nos. The Klingons have always been a little bit xenophobic. Even in Voyager, the most future-forward show of the franchise, the Klingons shunned a half-human, half-Klingon girl who was not Klingon enough for them. It only gets worse the further back in time you go. But for some reason when the away party arrives on the surface of Qo’nos the area they venture to is populated almost entirely by Orions rather than Klingons.

There is no real justification given for this choice and fans were supposed to simply be distracted by the reference to a TOS race that is often ignored in the later series. However, it makes no sense in this universe or in the canon it supposedly resides in. Furthermore, the choice results in a disappointing, fairly generic, seedy, urban underbelly that we’ve seen in countless other science fiction series right down to mixing the brothels and arms dealers with good-natured gamblers and outlier religious adherents.

Star Trek writers fall into another LGBTQIA++ Trope Pitfall

Not content to rest on their laurels of falling prey to the Bury Your Gays trope – and I promise we’ll get more into that this weekend – Discovery’s writers proved they weren’t done with adding plot points to the series seemingly designed primarily to upset their socially liberal audience members. The away team needs to locate some Klingon temples in order to find a path to the inactive volcanoes so they can use a probe to do…something… that will supposedly help them end the war. Georgiou’s method includes succumbing to the “Evil is Sexy” trope.

For a long time villains, especially female villains, have been stereotyped as being more sexually promiscuous than their more honorable counterparts. They’re constantly trying to seduce the heroes or wearing skimpy clothing. In this particular case, they leaned into it as hard as they could until it evolved into the “Depraved Bisexual” trope. Georgiou doesn’t just attempt to seduce the information out of just anyone. She identifies two prostitutes, one apparently male and one apparently female; loudly exclaims about how this universe appeals to her more, now; has sex with both of them simultaneously; does it so well that they talk about how they should be paying her for the experience; and finally she threatens their lives in order to get the information she wants. If there were an “Only evil people would consider having any kind of sexual encounter other than heterosexual intercourse between two people in a committed relationship” bingo card she’d have hit every single box. Ordinarily, this might be cause for some eye-rolling and maybe a minor footnote about how media still hasn’t caught up with the times. Star Trek has always held itself to a higher standard, however. This is no less true of the new series than it was the original. When you declare yourself to be a show that wants to do better than you are going to get called out when you miss that mark. And they missed it badly, here.

The first plan is stupid, the second plan isn’t much better

Skipping back ahead, it turns out – OF COURSE – that Georgiou’s plan is not to do any probing. She’s going to blow up the entire planet. And – OF COURSE – Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Michael discover this. Honestly, did Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brooke), Sarek (James Fraine), and Georgiou really think they were going to be able to pull this mission off without any of the Discovery crew figuring out that they were actually carrying a bomb? They risked the failure of their mission by not informing them sooner. It’s entirely possible that Tilly and Michael might have caused the mission to fail in a way from which there would be no recovery if they had found out at a different time or reacted differently than they did.

And this is when things got really dicey, writing-wise, at least. Things actually get really easy in-universe. Michael goes back to the ship, tells (Acting) Captain Saru (Doug Jones) what’s going on and together they confront Cornwell about how this is the wrong thing to do. This is the moment the writers have been working for. In the pilot episode, Michael commits mutiny because she is convinced that the only way to defeat the Klingons and save the Federation is to sacrifice their principles. Now she is ready to commit mutiny again but this time she wants to save their principles. It’s a nifty little narrative circle. Unfortunately, it’s undercut by just how easily it’s accomplished. The admiral is quickly convinced and an alternate plan is immediately conceived and enacted. Georgiou is still allowed to go free – which will absolutely, in no way bite anyone in the butt later. And instead of setting off the bomb in Qo’nos active volcano system they give the detonator to their captive Klingon, L’Rell.

Let me number the ways this is a stupid idea:

  1. L’Rell is no friend to the Federation. Even if the Klingons aren’t behaving the way she wanted there was no guarantee she’d call off the war as part of her campaign to set the Klingons on the straight and narrow.
  2. You decided you didn’t want to commit genocide, but you absolutely just gave someone else that power if they want to use it.
  3. A single bomb with a single detonator does not seem like an effective way to effect civilization-wide social change.
    1. The bomb is sitting in active magma, it might become disabled.
    2. The detonator might break or lose signal.
    3. All it would take is a handful of Klingons working together in order to ensure they could resume working against each other to steal the detonator or kill or kidnap L’Rell. We’ve seen Klingons do this sort of thing before.
    4. Is she really going to blow up her homeworld if they disobey her?
      1. No, seriously. If one Klingon steps out of line she surely can’t blow up her homeworld. But at what point should she actually draw the line? The nature of sentient beings being forced to do something they don’t want to do is to constantly push at that boundary. She’s either going to need enough allies and manpower to deal with individual miscreants or the entire thing is going to fall apart. And she walks into this situation with exactly zero allies and manpower to her name.
  4. This entire part of the story comes across weird because everyone is just so damn easy to convince. Apparently, if they had talked to Michael sooner they could have avoided this entire part of the conflict, not that it took much energy or time to resolve once it was outed. It kind of makes Cornwell seem like she can be convinced to go along with whatever plan is presented to her last which is…not a good look.

But – OF COURSE – L’Rell is as easily convinced as Georgiou and Cornwell to go along with this plan. And it WORKS. She threatens the Klingon leaders and they immediately capitulate. And that’s…it. This plan goes off entirely without a hitch. I don’t remember the last time I saw a plan go that smoothly on TV or in real life or anywhere else. But, of course, it had to go smoothly so the writers could wrap up this storyline so they can do something entirely different, next season. Honestly, this episode could have benefited from having one final conflict in this part of the story to make the final victory feel a bit more earned. This season finale of an internet-only show was still only 47 minutes or so, it’s not like it would have made it unbearably long.

That cameo everyone loved was kinda dumb

Yes, I’m going after the Enterprise cameo. I don’t hate so much that it happened, but the how of it was completely ridiculous. The USS Discovery is headed toward Vulcan to pick up her new captain when they receive a priority distress call. Saru orders the ship to drop out of warp drive so they can attempt to get a better read on the signal. That’s all fine. But when the Enterprise dives into view out from a random space cloud, everyone seems to forget that it was in distress. They just kind of stare at the screen with awed smiles. Of course, who can blame them for forgetting it was in distress. It doesn’t look like it’s in distress and then the episode finishes with a flourish, using the original theme song.

But along with completely glossing over the distress part of the call, why exactly are these crew members in awe of the ship? The answer is: because the writers were hoping the audience would be in awe of it. Seriously, nothing that has ever been mentioned in any of the series, but especially this one, gives any indication that the Enterprise has been part of any kind of the crazy exploits it will be known for under Kirk, yet. It wasn’t even considered the flagship of the fleet and was one of many ships of the same class. There is literally no reason for anyone on that bridge to be in awe of it except to inspire or reflect the awe of the audience for the moment.

There were some good moments in this episode. The decision to restore Burnham’s commission and rank should serve as a balm to those who were disappointed in the series’ choice to make a woman of color into its star only to immediately reveal that it would be as a convicted felon. Every interaction Burnham had with Ash Tyler was pitch perfect for both of them as an example of how two mature adults can handle the end of a relationship. The complete ending of the Klingon War plotline also opens up some great opportunities to move toward other kinds of stories in the future and I can only be grateful for that. The finale may have been the worst episode of the series to date but it was still a lot better than a lot of other television out there and leaves plenty of promise for the future of the series.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is almost entirely filler

And that’s not a bad thing

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is a simple, short show with an extremely straight-forward plot and charming characters. The show is only a single season of only 10 episodes. It’s cute, calm, and incredibly pleasant to watch in this day of high-tension serialized shows. It’s almost refreshing to watch a show where everything pretty much goes the way you expect, especially when there’s no life or death drama to contend with. The simple plot, however, means the majority of the airtime is filler.

There has been this sentiment around the internet, recently – or at least in my circles of the internet – that “Filler Episodes” of television are among the worst evils to plague humanity. People complain about it in the Arrowverse shows on the CW, they complain about it in The Walking Dead, I’ve even seen some people complain about filler moments in Game of Thrones. First, let’s answer the question, “What even is filler?”

The simple definition is a segment of a story that doesn’t contribute to the overall story aka advance the plot. The most common place you’ll see this is in a TV series where somewhere between one and a handful of episodes will not particularly advance the overall plot of the story. It is rarer but it can show up in video games or movies, too. One example of it happening in a movie is the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where the Gryffindor boys sit on their beds eating sweets that cause them to make animal noises. The best example in a video game off the top of my head comes from Persona 5. After the heroes complete the first dungeon there is a 30-minute series of cutscenes during that shows the kids celebrating their victory by eating themselves sick at a fancy hotel buffet but otherwise does very little to advance the plot. So that’s what filler is and you know a lot of people are complaining about it but is it inevitably bad? Absolutely not.

Think of it like donuts, for example. Some donuts have no filling, and those are fine. You can probably eat several simple glazed or powdered cake donuts in a sitting. Some donuts have a jelly filling and you bite into those and wonder, “Why would you ruin this perfectly fine donut with overly sweet fruit preserves?” But still other donuts have the Bavarian cream filling. And those donuts can be the best donuts you’ve ever eaten but they’re very rich. So if you got a dozen donuts you’d probably want to avoid the jelly-filled donuts, to take only a few of the ones with the Bavarian cream, and then you’d stock up primarily on the regular ones.

There is such a thing as good filler and bad filler. But since you’re not doing anything to the story you pretty much have to do something to the characters. Good filler is a great opportunity to make the characters in your story seem more real and maybe even expand the universe of your story by giving them simple moments free of life-or-death tension for a bit to just be. But in the being the audience should learn something new about them. That’s why the example of filler from Harry Potter is an example of bad filler. It doesn’t tell you anything about the characters – we learn nothing new about the boys from this scene, and candy that causes the person eating it to make an animal noise doesn’t even contribute much to our understanding of the universe. The Persona 5 example, on the other hand, is good filler. In a calm moment, you can see the characters introduced to that point interact with and tease each other. You learn more about their motivations, their relationships, and how they think. It would have been easier for the writers, developers, and designers to just show the kids pigging out for a few seconds and then move on but doing it that way actually benefited the story by helping the audience understand the characters who would be making important plot decisions later.

Let’s talk about a TV series. How about Star Trek? Which episode is the most iconic of all the episodes in the original series? If you said “The Trouble with Tribbles” you win a cookie. From a website. Congrats. That episode is pure filler. The stakes are low, it’s silly to a nearly unreasonable degree, and it absolutely makes every single top 10 ranking out there – usually in the top 5. It’s a great episode. But the other thing about filler is knowing when and how to use it. If every episode were like that, Star Trek would have been a very different show. So the two keys to good filler, as you may have guessed from the donut analogy, is quantity and type.

The modern television experience, however, is built around two ideas. Binge watching for internet-focused series and viewer-retainment for the more traditional offerings. In both cases, the serialized format (which I explained in more detail in my post about The Orvillemakes the most sense. Bingers will prefer a serialized style that naturally leads them from episode to episode. Weekly shows benefit from curious viewers who will be far more likely to come back next week for a continuing plot of a mediocre or even poorly written show if the story still has loose ends. There is also the fact that many series are shortening their seasons from the once traditional 23-26 episodes into something more like 10-15. This all means that adding filler into a season will almost certainly force writers to trim the main story.

Also, without the narrative room for filler that existed previously the filler that does get produced is now poorly squeezed in and often unjustified. For example, an episode like “The Trouble with Tribbles” would make no sense in Star Trek: Discovery right now because the writers have used the serialized format to ratchet the tension up to a permanent 11. There’s no time to take a break and be silly because people are dying for every moment the USS Discovery isn’t out shooting down bad guys. Something similar has happened in The Walking Dead. Couple this with the fact that viewers are also now trained to be upset when their narrative curiosity goes unrewarded in the next episode and the complaints out there can seem justified. Especially if that filler is more like the Harry Potter example than Star Trek or Persona 5.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie, however, uses its filler to expand and reveal its terrific cast of characters in a way that makes watching the show enjoyable even without overly impressive visuals or a particularly dramatic story.  It allows the audience to relax and enjoy learning more about the characters’ motivations and watch their relationships grow in a show-don’t-tell way that can usually only be seen in filler episodes. The dedication to focusing on characters instead of plot tension makes the show an almost meditative experience. It’s very easy to just veg out and feel like you’re hanging out with some friends. You probably won’t want to watch this kind of show constantly any more than every episode of Star Trek should have been “The Trouble with Tribbles”. But in a world filled with regular donuts interspersed with a few of the gross jelly-filled variety, it can be good to have some rich bavarian cream donuts to break things up, from time to time.

FtHE’s Game of the Year: Persona 5

A nearly perfect single-player, story-driven video game experience.

I guess we should start off with the caveat. I couldn’t have picked The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Horizon: Zero Dawn or tons of other games for this award, this year, even if I wanted to. I didn’t play any of them. I have played only three games that were released in 2017: Persona 5, NieR: Automata, and Assassin’s Creed: Origins (that is a lot of colons in video games, this year, sheesh!) Now I have serious doubts that I would have chosen any other game because I’ve heard some stuff about Zelda that turned me off and about HZD that sounded dull. Maybe the new Mario game would have interested me, but I don’t have a Switch so that wasn’t happening either. These flaws might not prevent these from being very good games, but it would prevent them from being my Game of the Year.

Persona 5, so far as I can tell, is a nearly perfect example of what a game can be when equal attention is devoted to gameplay, story-telling, and character design; a modern example of what blending them all together toward a unified goal can achieve. The characters are all interesting including heroes who are realistically goofy teenagers. The conflicts the game introduces are all things that people and teenagers are facing even in the real world, today, which gives it a strength in being able to connect with its audience. The gameplay fulfills the fantasies of many teens – and adults – who wish that problems were simple enough to be punched or stabbed away while also advocating for the power of strong, interpersonal relationships and a willingness to put yourself out there for others.

The visuals are top notch in part because they completely eschew the modern trend toward photorealism in favor of a unique, bold style. People have even tried to invent awards just for the menu system which is colorful and flashy but never distracting; in fact, it uses the flash to guide players. The combat gameplay is finely tuned and polished; of course, it absolutely should be considering Atlus has beeen doing variations of this system for literally decades. Even the non-combat gameplay manages to be incredibly engaging and, it bears repeating, everything in the game works together to form a cohesive whole. For example, ***small spoiler (jump to the next paragraph to skip it***, shortly after arriving in Tokyo the Protagonist has to take the subway to make it to his first day of classes. The game forces you to navigate this subway trip manually the first time and it is a very confusing experience as you try to navigate one of the hub terminals of Tokyo to arrive at the school. This makes sense from a character perspective – of course a 17-year-old kid who has never been out of his comparatively tiny town is unused to navigating a massive subway system. It also contributes from a gameplay perspective, giving players an opportunity to really familiarize themselves with the navigation system and forcing them to endure this confusion with the protagonist which allows for greater empathy/a stronger bond to him.

Atlus also provides some pretty excellent value in this game. I spent approximately 140 hours playing it and I did not even do everything there was to do. Many players will probably spend less time but that will still end up being closer to 80-100 hours and, in direct contrast to the current trend of AAA, open-world RPGs very little of that will be spent in pointless fetch quests or ticking things off of a map. 95% of this game is spent doing things that directly impact important characters or story points. For even more value there are several free costume and item DLCs available for players to go along with the paid ones.

However, the most ingenious part of the design of this game is the conversation system. For starters, it’s designed with every bell and whistle you could imagine. While you usually can’t directly skip over conversations because user input is frequently required you can fast-forward over them to your next dialogue choice. Didn’t mean to fast-forward? Open up the conversation history with the press of a button and you can see everything every conversation participant has said so far, including options you didn’t select when given choices. You can even replay the voice acting from this menu. But the best part is probably the implementation of the dialog choice system.

Mass Effect popularized the idea of branching conversations which allowed for users to make their own dialogue choices based on some snippets meant to indicate the tone of the response. This complicated system worked pretty well for two games but eventually broke down when it came time to end the trilogy. There were so many choices that branched in so many directions it was impossible to keep up with when it came time to conclude the story. Persona‘s system, first of all, reduces player confusion by having the exact, complete text of the choices available at the time of the choice. Persona 5‘s system also doesn’t really attempt to branch at all. Instead it changes the tone of conversations – and therefore dictates the personality of the protagonist – but eventually circles them back around to where they would have been in the first place. This allows for Atlus to create a game that will still be unique for most players, the ultimate goal of Mass Effect, without creating the crippling problems that attempting to change wide swathes of the story or character intentions had in that game.

Just for variety there are a fair number of dialog options which can affect how much your friends like you, dictating the speed of relationship progression. None of them make them hate you or like you less or abandon you entirely. So you can’t really screw things up like you could in some BioWare games. Some might worry at how interesting the game can be given this reduction of scope but it works out a lot better for the story and characters given the limitations of today’s technology. It’s a smooth middle path that neatly avoids the potential pitfalls of giving players too much freedom to write a cohesive story and giving them so little that they feel trapped or bored.

The story absolutely benefits from this linearity. It’s nearly impossible to effectively tell a story in open-world games. For years developers have struggled to help players strike a great balance between stopping to do side quests and actually progressing the story. Whether or not you’ve written a terrific campaign it can get lost in the weeds and lose its sense of urgency if a player turns around and spends hours ticking items off of a map. Even if you think you can strike that balance it ends up being a bit odd, tonally, when you go out on a quest to collect some frogs for a researcher even though it means you don’t immediately answer Gondor’s call for aid. One game that suffers for the decision to go open world, for example, is Final Fantasy XV. That game has a dual identity as a sandbox game starring a quartet of good-looking, good-hearted dude-bros wandering around the countryside and the skeleton of a very interesting main story. But because it is split between the two the sandbox gets abandoned partway through and the story never gets filled out.

(For what it’s worth, Assassin’s Creed: Origins does a great job fixing the tone problem with its side-quests by designing a protagonist to be someone who helps out people great and small as a matter of both personality and occupation. It makes sense for him to take temporary breaks from his quest for vengeance in order to help a poor scholar retrieve his scrolls or to search for a missing child. So it can be done, but it takes a lot more thought or time than many are willing or able to put into their games, these days.)

Despite the linear story, Persona 5 still gives players lots of freedom; you typically have several weeks to complete main quest stories during which you can complete side quests, participate in a large number of hobbies, or work an after-school job. But because of the way the story is structured these moments fit in with the tone as well as representing activities you might actually expect characters with these personalities and experiences to want to do. For example, a character might suggest that exams are coming up and it would be wise to take a break from fighting evil for a bit to hit the books. Other times if you have  completed a main quest before it’s deadline all you can do is wait to see what the fallout is. That’s a great time to build some lockpicks in your bedroom or watch a rented DVD. With so many choices and with such interesting characters to talk to it rarely feels like the game is restraining you from really exploring the world around you. The sense of urgency is maintained by regular conversations with your party members about the stakes of the mission and a good dose of the feeling that life must go on, even under all of the dire threats these high-schoolers face.

The game isn’t perfect, of course. Perhaps the most annoying flaw is also the one that got the most meme treatment: Morgana’s constant prodding to go to bed. Most in-game days are spent in class all morning, followed by an opportunity to do one thing that afternoon, and another that night. If you choose to dungeon crawl that’s usually the only thing you can do for the day but otherwise you have lots of options. During periods of special events or between-quest-story-telling, however, you frequently cannot do anything except watch the story progress, even if seems like the events of the day should leave one or more of those time slots available. Instead, Morgana will insist you need extra rest to force you to progress to the next day’s story. These periods are usually great for the massive story and character hits that get thrown at the player but they’re also frustrating for the lack of player input. The trade-off that most video games aren’t willing to accept is that you’re just going to have to sit there and watch the story unfold for a bit before you can resume participating more actively. If the player is heavily invested in the story of the game, this can be a worthwhile payoff. If they’re not then it makes no sense to have it. Atlus is determined to tell a worthwhile and interesting story with their game so they took that gamble. If you’re as big into stories as I am this is entirely worth it for Persona 5‘s quality effort.

My biggest beef, however,  is actually with the decision to block the built-in software for recording and taking screenshots for the entirety of the game. When I discovered that my PS4 has these functions built in I was finally able to get into recording and streaming for fun. There are still thousands of people out there with their own capture cards so blocking recording on the PS4 doesn’t actually prevent gameplay from being uploaded to social media. The only people Atlus are actually preventing from sharing are the people who can’t afford the capture cards. It’s unfair, it’s unreasonable, and most importantly it’s ineffective at achieving their stated goal of preventing spoilers from leaking out. Especially since the game has been out in Japan for over a year and for the rest of the world for several months. Stop blocking the built-in capturing, Atlus! And everyone else, for that matter!

In a world where video game developers have gone from completed single-player games to cutting out story DLC to adding in multiplayer modes to unbalancing multiplayer modes in order to encourage loot box gambling it is refreshing to see a company that shirks all of that to deliver a focused and completed game. If you’ve been dying for a video game with above average gameplay in its genre and a terrific ability to tell a quality story in a fascinating world about interesting characters I cannot recommend Persona 5, my 2017 Game of the Year Award Winner, enough.